Academic politics reached an intense peak last week, first with the circulation
of a so-called research report by the selfstyled Institute for Strategic Zionism
(ISZ), followed closely by the well-orchestrated media publication of the letter
sent by the right-wing student organization Im Tirtzu to the president of
Ben-Gurion University, Prof. Rivka Karmi. The draft ISZ report made a
strong attack on the country’s sociology departments, accusing them of teaching
and researching post-Zionism and anti-state theories. The Im Tirtzu letter
accused the Politics Department at BGU of imposing leftwing theories and values
on its students, and threatened Karmi that unless the university began to employ
right-wing professors, it would persuade donors from abroad – especially North
America – to cease donating.
These were not isolated incidents. The past
few years have witnessed a growth in right-wing activity aimed at delegitimizing
the country’s universities and their academic staff. To ISZ and Im Tirtzu can be
added Isracampus and NGO Monitor, both of which have targeted academics and NGOs
which hold views, or promote projects, which are not in line with their
well-funded right-wing agendas.
The objective of these organizations is
clear and has nothing to do with academic objectivity or balanced research. They
are out to impose their own single-minded view of Israel and Zionism, close down
any form of critical discourse and, given the nature of the present government,
influence the legislators in the Knesset to support their cause.
problem with both the ISZ report and the Im Tirtzu letter is that they are full
of false and highly selective information. ISZ, headed by former West Bank
settlement leader Yisrael Harel, chose to focus on just a few research projects
and courses out of the hundreds which are taught, conveniently ignoring the
diversity of research which goes on in the country’s sociology and anthropology
departments. The Im Tirtzu letter put out false information about a dynamic and
highly popular academic department which promotes social and political awareness
among its students.
This same department, most of whose faculty are
immigrants from the West, who teach air force cadets and who head up the both
the university’s center for European studies and the recently created African
studies center, have been collectively labeled as anti-Zionist and
The political agenda of these organizations has become even
clearer this past week as it has been revealed that, among other foreign donors,
the ISZ has been funded by the right-wing Hudson Institute in the US, which has
also funded activities of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s special security
adviser and well-known political hawk, Dr. Uzi Arad. Im Tirtzu has been
receiving designated financial aid from right-wing Christian Evangelist pastor
John Hagee, channeled through the due diligence of the Jewish Agency who do not
see this as problematic.
RIGHT-WING GROUPS do not like it when they are
accused of McCarthyism. But when you try to influence the hiring (and firing)
policy of universities based on political views, that is McCarthyism. And when
you plant people in classes and at conferences to write false reports about what
is discussed to further your political agenda and create a sense of fear among
students, this is McCarthyism. And when you try to intervene in the curriculum
in a highly selective fashion, this is McCarthyism. When you portray anyone who
doesn’t agree with you as being anti-state, abetting the enemy and not
sufficiently patriotic, this is McCarthyism – pure and simple.
academic establishment has finally awakened to the danger. Clear statements have
been made by the rectors and presidents of Haifa, Tel Aviv and Ben- Gurion
universities. Over the weekend, the Joint University Committee of Academic
Faculty, along with the Basha’ar think tank, both of which represent a wide
range of academics with political views across the spectrum condemned the threat
tactics of ISZ and Im Tirtzu and restated the basic principles of academic
And there is more to come. It is understood that now that the
sociologists and political scientists have been dealt with, the next targeted
groups are philosophers and Israeli historians. And there are plenty of
journalists out there who are quite happy to publish this information without
checking any of the facts, as has been so evident during the past
Universities exist not only to teach a profession. They also exist
to make their students socially and politically aware, and actively involved in
the debates concerning the society and state in which they live.
critical discourse and constant challenging of accepted theories, there would be
little point in having social science and humanities faculties. And as long as
the views which are taught do not break the law and do not incite violence, it
is incumbent on our students and researchers to cover the broadest possible
spectrum of views.
The fact that the country’s universities also house
some of the most extreme right-wing professors, under the guise of the
Professors for a Strong Israel organization, is conveniently forgotten by ISZ,
Im Tirtzu and like-minded organizations. If you agree with them, you are a
patriot (self-appointed), but if you hold a different opinion you are a traitor
and should be fired.
Their assertion that only like-minded people are
hired for academic positions is not only nonsensical, it is insulting to the
country’s universities and research centers, which enjoy international prestige
for the high quality of their research.
Over a period of almost 15 years
I have been involved in the hiring and promotion of many academics, and I can
state categorically that at no time has the political preferences or opinions of
a candidate ever been part of the decision-making process. The quality of a
person’s research, his/her international prestige and the recommendations
received from academic peers are the sole criteria, and it is harmful and
damaging to suggest anything else. It would indeed behoove our academic
institutions to become more transparent about the promotion and tenure process
so that this false argument could be buried once and for all.
Not only do
ISZ and Im Tirtzu threaten freedom of expression and academic freedom, they are
doing great harm to Israel’s reputation as a place of open debate and diversity
of opinion. This damage is far greater than that caused by a small number of
Israeli professors who have supported an academic boycott – a stance rejected by
99 percent of Israel’s academic community regardless of their political
positions and opinions.
Of even greater concern is the fact that their
activities are creating an environment in which both students and faculty, by
their own admission, are beginning to feel afraid of voicing their own opinions
and to feel physically threatened as well.
It is time for all those who
believe in freedom of speech to stand up and voice their clear opposition to
those who would try to deny it. The use of false and selective information by
ISZ, Im Tirtzu and Isracampus, the atmosphere of threat which they are creating
and their use of misinformed foreign donors to promote their political cause is
finally being exposed for what it really is – a threat to the democratic fabric
of a vibrant and dynamic State of Israel.
The writer is professor of
political geography at Ben-Gurion University and editor of the International
Journal, Geopolitics. He is also dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social
Sciences at BGU, one of the founders of the Department of Politics and
Government – the target of the Im Tirtzu report – and has represented Israel’s
universities in the UK against all attempts to impose an academic boycott.